Double standards and history’s butchers

This week the Twentieth Century’s seventh greatest mass murderer died a dignified death in his bed, amidst tributes from Western leaders. According to The Washington Post,

President Bush sent his regrets over Suharto’s death. “President Bush expresses his condolences to the people of Indonesia on the loss of their former president,” said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council.

As far as Australia is concerned, the event showcased our capacity for bipartisanship at its best. The tyrant’s adoptive son Paul Keating attended the funeral as a special representative of the Government. Brendan Nelson ‘thanked the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, for inviting Liberal leaders to represent Australia at the funeral.’

“There are many things that happened under President Soeharto’s regime which were outstandingly good for Indonesia and its relationship with Australia, but there were many, many other things including human rights abuses for which his family I understand is now seeking forgiveness,” he said.

The former foreign minister Alexander Downer hailed Soeharto’s “impressive strategic understanding of the region.. He was certainly greedy, he was certainly a dictator, he certainly had a poor human rights record.. But on the other hand there was much more to President Soeharto than that. He certainly had a very clear vision of Indonesia’s role in South-East Asia and East Asia generally.”

In 1998, when the monster was pushed out of power, Edward Herman drew attention to a noticeable contrast, in the attitude of the Western media, between Suharto’s case and that of another Asian despot:

This politicized classification system was unfailingly employed by the media in the period of Suharto’s decline and fall (1997-98). When Pol Pot died in April 1998, the media were unstinting in condemnation, calling him “wicked,” “loathsome,” and “monumentally evil” (Chicago Tribune, 4/18/98), a “lethal mass killer” and “war criminal” (L.A. Times, 4/17/98), “blood-soaked” and an “egregious mass murderer” (Washington Post, 4/17/98, 4/18/98). His rule was repeatedly described as a “reign of terror” and he was guilty of “genocide.” Although he inherited a devastated country with starvation rampant, all excess deaths during his rule were attributed to him, and he was evaluated on the basis of those deaths.

Although Suharto’s regime was responsible for a comparable number of deaths in Indonesia, along with more than a quarter of the population of East Timor, the word “genocide” is virtually never used in mainstream accounts of his rule…In the months of his exit, he was referred to as Indonesia’s “soft-spoken, enigmatic president” (USA Today, 5/14/98), a “profoundly spiritual man” (New York Times, 5/17/98), a “reforming autocrat” (New York Times, 5/22/98). His motives were benign: “It was not simply personal ambition that led Mr. Suharto to clamp down so hard for so long; it was a fear, shared by many in this country of 210 million people, of chaos” (New York Times, 6/2/98) .. He was sometimes described as “authoritarian,” occasionally as a “dictator,” but never as a mass murderer. Suharto’s mass killings were referred to–if at all–in a brief and antiseptic paragraph.

Ten years later, the paragraphs are a little longer and not so antiseptic, although The Washington Post continues the practice, noted by Herman, of describing the events of 1965-6 in the passive voice:

The bulk of killings occurred in 1965-1966 when alleged communists were rounded up and slain during his rise to power. Estimates for the death toll range from a government figure of 78,000 to 1 million cited by U.S. historians Barbara Harff and Ted Robert Gurr, who have published books on Indonesia’s history…During Indonesia’s 1975-1999 occupation of East Timor, up to 183,000 people died due to killings, disappearances, hunger and illness, according to an East Timorese commission sanctioned by the U.N. Similar abuses left more than 100,000 dead in West Papua, according a local human rights group. Another 15,000 died during a 29-year separatist rebellion in Aceh province.

The New York Times reports the body count, but is still reluctant to prejudge:

His precise role in the violence is not clear; he managed to keep his name from being directly attached to it. What is clear is that in many areas the army, which he controlled, supplied weapons to and whipped up a tense population to mutilate and murder people suspected of being Communists, many of them of Chinese ancestry. Estimates of the number of dead have ranged from 500,000 to as many as one million…Contemporary dispatches reported that the general sent crack troops of the armys Strategic Reserve Command to organize the liquidation of the Communists. Hamish McDonald, a journalist with wide experience in Asia, wrote in his book Suhartos Indonesia that General Suharto later dispatched Col. Sarwo Edhi Wibowo with a force of commandos to encourage the anti-Communist civilians to help with the job. The colonel said, We gave them two or three days training, then sent them out to kill the Communists.

That’s our own Hamish MacDonald they’re talking about, of course. He and fellow SMH writer David Jenkins, both authors of books on Indonesia, have written the least whitewashed obituaries. Neither pretends that Suharto’s atrocities all occurred in a distant past when different standards applied, or concludes that his thirty-two year rule was on balance for the good.

By contrast, Greg Sheridan in The Australian is overflowing with praise, describing Suharto as a ‘prime mover of history [whose] rule was of immeasurable benefit to Australia.’ Without acknowledging the huge cloud of suspicion over the general’s role in the 30 September coup, he boldly asserts that Suharto ‘defeated a botched pro-communist coup attempt.’ As for the killings that followed

… it is still not clear exactly what role the army played nor indeed precisely how much control Suharto, still struggling with Sukarno, had.. The savage and mostly Muslim initiated anti-communist violence was a cover for many unrelated violent actions. The army certainly wanted to suppress the communists, whom it believed had orchestrated the 1965 coup attempt, but the army was not responsible for much of the killing.

John Gorton gets the friendship going in 1968

But that’s pretty much what we’d expect from a Henry Kissinger sycophant and lifelong apologist for third world fascist regimes in general.

The real question is why our leaders, who on average possess higher ethical faculties than the likes of Greg Sheridan, must go on honouring a man whose crimes against humanity far outweigh those of Milosevic, Pinochet, and probably even Idi Amin, none of whom they would hesitate to condemn publicly. Part of the answer is presumably realpolitik: given that Indonesia’s current ruling class still officially revere the man, despite tentative moves to prosecute him for corruption, there can be no practical advantage in antagonising them. Senior members of the Indonesian army, perhaps including future leaders, would be condemned by implication and alienated as well.

The second reason is that the Governments of the USA, Britain, and Australia have still not admitted their complicity in Suharto’s ‘disguised coup’ and the bloodbath that followed. To say that the US actually ‘engineered the slaughter’ is obviously a simplification, but it is clear that the Johnson Administration and the CIA provided plenty of assistance, while British and Australian spies and diplomats observed the repression with satisfaction, and worked hard to ensure a positive spin in the Western press.

Most of the Australian protagonists in the events on 1965-66 are dead. But when the time comes to judge them harshly, which it inevitably will, the same standards will be applied to the 1970s governments and ’80s governments, who continued to appease Suharto as he extended his brutal methods to other parts of the archipelago. The occupants of those governments, and their friends and proteges, still crowd the stage today. However, now that the truth is cartching up with Gough Whitlam, in the form of a humble Coroner’s verdict, the extent of our shameful cooperation will begin to impress itself on the public consciousness. When the motive of protecting reputations ceases to operate, the General will take his rightful place in the rogues’ gallery.

Update: More from John Quiggin.

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Jason Soon
Jason Soon
13 years ago

I just brought up these arguments on my open forum and I’ll reprise them here.

Seriously –
1) Why is Suhartos death toll inflated by the riots that resulted from the overthrow of Sukarno but the pro-democracy activists not held responsible for the riot-related death toll when Suharto was overthrown?

2) I think Sheridan’s view is defensible. Suharto did not order the deaths the people killed in the riots in the same way that (to use another dictator example) Pinochet ordered the deaths of people herded into the stadiums to be shot. You could argue he was negligent or whatever – unfortunately this sort of thing comes with the territory when governments get overthrown, especially in Indonesia. The army is a force in itself in Indonesia. It is not implausible to argue at all that Suharto did not have an iron grip over everything his army was doing.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
13 years ago

BTW James many Indonesians would be happy to disagree with you on the net benefits of Suharto.

Many Malaysians would also probably disagree with you. The madman Sukarno and his Communist allies were engineering terrorist sabotage on Malaysia (google Konfrontasi). The Communist party were no longer just parliamentary activists and were not killed just for being parliamentary activists – there is a lot of credible evidence to suggest they were responsible for various extra-parliamentary actions in Indonesia including assassinations. If Suharto hadn’t ended Sukarno’s reign and made peace with Malaysia, things could have escalated in many unpredictable ways.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
13 years ago

Jason, I’m glad we agree about Pinochet, and I accept the distinction, but would you scale down the body count for any of the other Top Ten tyrants on the same basis? As far as the second comment goes, there is no shortage of supporters of Pinochet in Chile either — nor, for that matter, for Saddam Hussein in Iraq (half of the Sunnis, say?). Finally, with respect to the counterfactual Malaysian history, I find it hard to see that half a million slayings in a neighbouring country would have been necessary to avert a civil war there.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
13 years ago

Jason, Im glad we agree about Pinochet, and I accept the distinction, but would you scale down the body count for any of the other Top Ten tyrants on the same basis?

James, I am glad you accept the distinction. That was my main point. Whether Suharto actually authorised the instigation of riots (as opposed to his not being able to control rogue sections of the army instigating it, something which also happened during the pro-democracy riots) is a moot point. So there are two steps here to Suharto being said to be responsible in the sense of actually ordering the executions of these people. As to whether I would scale it down, well for the purposes of comparison with Pinochet that is basically what I did, isn’t it?

Also in comparison with the rest of the top 10, to what extent was Suharto identified with being anti-Chinese for instance such that his identification with being anti-Chinese could hold him responsible for the deaths of Chinese killed in the riots to the same extent that Milosevic was identified with anti-Muslim rhetoric and therefore to be held responsible for the deaths of Muslims? Bear in mind in the resulting riots, many of the Muslim rioters saw what they were doing as ‘jihad’ just as the Balinese rioters saw what they were doing as furthering ‘Hindu’ interests.

There isn’t any comparison (and yes I am aware that Suharto passed significant anti-Chinese legislation after he took power but such restrictions were also present during Sukarno’s reign, and it could be argue what he did insofar as it placated the majority, while undesirable, probably reduced the incidence of further pogrom-like attacks).

THR
THR
13 years ago

It seems there is not atrocity that cannot be revised, if it brings with it a neoliberal economy.

Estimates for the number killed during his bloody rise to power from 1965 to 1968 range from a government figure of 78,000 to 1 million cited by U.S. historians Barbara Harff and Ted Robert Gurr, who have published books on Indonesia’s history. It was the worst mass slaughter in Southeast Asia’s modern history after the Khmer Rouge killing fields in Cambodia…

The CIA provided lists of thousands of leftists, including trade union members, intellectuals and schoolteachers, many of whom were executed or sent to remote prisons.

Another 183,000 died due to killings, disappearances, hunger and illness during Indonesia’s 1975-1999 occupation of East Timor, according to an East Timorese commission sanctioned by the U.N. Similar abuses left more than 100,000 dead in West Papua, according a local human rights group. Another 15,000 died during a 29-year separatist rebellion in Aceh province…

Suharto’s regime capitalized on existing tensions between Muslims and atheist communists, inciting the nation’s powerful Islamic groups to join the purge.

Hasyim Asyhari, 67, a former member of a conservative Sunni Islamic youth group in the Blitar region, said the group received army orders to identify, hunt down and kill communists.

He said he is proud of saving the nation from communist domination and helping “turn communist sympathizers into good Muslims.”

“We used farm tools, daggers and clubs” to kill prisoners, Asyhari said in an interview. “I followed the orders of the government.”

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080127/ap_on_re_as/suharto_s_survivors

But on the other hand, Wolfowitz was ‘close’ to the regime, and the WSJ couldn’t sing Suharto’s praises highly enough:
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120148217630521045.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

So I guess there are 2 sides to every story.

Jc
Jc
13 years ago

It seems there is not atrocity that cannot be revised, if it brings with it a neoliberal economy.

I take it that you’re including Mao and the subsequent opening of the Chinese economy in your put down, aren’t you THR?

James,

This week the Twentieth Centurys seventh greatest mass murderer died a dignified death in his bed, amidst tributes from Western leaders.

James, where would you fit Castro on the list of mass murdering crazies? We he fit in the top 10 or the top 20?

THR
THR
13 years ago

Who here is discussing Mao? I thought we were minimising the atrocities of Suharto?

Jc
Jc
13 years ago

It seems there is not atrocity that cannot be revised, if it brings with it a neoliberal economy.

You mean how your inference like this one was only about Suharto?

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
13 years ago

Nothing you linked to contradicts my point about the haziness of Suharto’s actual responsibility for the instigation policy.

And anyone who thinks the Chinese killed in the resulting riots were killed solely because they were Communists targeted by Suharto specifically doesn’t understand racial politics in SE Asia.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
13 years ago

let me spell it out for you THR – the paranoid atmosphere created by Communist infltration of the army under Sukarno gave many Indonesians the excuse to kill their non-Muslim and non-bumiputera neighbours they were looking for when Sukarno was deposed. Similar breakdown of order led to similar killings when Suharto himself lost power. The rioters and vigilantes are responsible for those killings. Suharto may have been irresponsible, he may have created a genie he couldn’t control, but that is a different order of responsibility from actually shepherding those people into execution rooms.

THR
THR
13 years ago

What leader has ever ‘shepherded’ anybody into execution rooms?

The quote in the Yahoo story above was from a Muslim, who indicated that his orders to kill came from the Government. Yahoo articles and SE Asian racial politics aside, it is perfectly clear that as the very least, Suharto would have been complicit with the mass slaughter going on.
It’s more than a little disingenuous to pin the blame for this sort of thing on the Lynndie Englands, rather than the Rumsfelds, to use an imprecise analgoy.

amphibious
amphibious
13 years ago

On last night’s 7.30 Report Dolly, in his barely acknowledged back bench irrelevance, pooh-poohed (Beared?)the $30B guestimate of the Suharto thefts as “stolen from Indonesians, not us..” so that’s all right then.
I can’t believe anyone would still dare to talk about a ‘kommunist coup attempt”>
Surely that belongs with WMDs and the Domino Theory and the Yellow Peril tide sweeping down by force of gravity?
Who or what is Soon and why was he invented?

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
13 years ago

Who or what is Soon and why was he invented?

Well if we’re going to get personal here, patronising-whiteboy (as most Pilgeresque lefties usually are), Soon was born in the country that Sukarno and his Communist cronies were terrorising until Suharto deposed Sukarno and ended that.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indonesia-Malaysia_confrontation

So never mind the alleged coup which may or may not have been Communist instigated, never mind the assassination of anti-Communist generals at that time, Indonesia’s disastrous and destabilising ‘Confrontation’ with Malaysia already had Communist support.

amphibious
amphibious
13 years ago

“alleged coup..may or may not..kommunist support..”
Quick off the mark, methinks apologist doth protest too much.

Jc
Jc
13 years ago

I cant believe anyone would still dare to talk about a kommunist coup attemptSurely that belongs with WMDs and the Domino Theory and the Yellow Peril tide sweeping down by force of gravity?

Ampibious, the Sgt Schultz of blogdom commenters.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
13 years ago

“Who or what is Soon and why was he invented?”

A guy who has the guts and the integrity to post under his own name on controversial issues as opposed to anonymous arsewipes like your good self, reptilious.

James Farrell
James Farrell
13 years ago

If there are any more insults I’ll delete them, along with any replies.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
13 years ago

Apologist?

I’m merely trying to put things in perspective.

These are propositions which I agree with

1) Suharto had blood on his hands
2) He was an authoritarian tyrant
3) He could have avoided unnecessary bloodshed by keeping tighter rein over what the rest of the army was doing and maintaining order

What I dispute is the claim that all the deaths arising from what THR calls the ‘Lynddie Englands’ going amok can be attributed to his direct orders. Not everyone slaughtered was even a leftist activist much less a communist. Sheridan’s claim that the resulting witch hunt of communist served as cover for neighbours to settle grievances with neighbours (specifically racial/economic resentments) is a plausible one. Incidentally in saying this I am of course not saying that the actual leftist or communist activists who got killed deserved it – merely that if the killing was restricted to these political enemies the body count would be lower. Even more so, if the killing had been restricted to those members of the PKI that did actually have Sukarno’s ear it would have been lower still.

It is also silly to claim that there was no basis for the paranoia about Communists being behind Sukarno’s tactics including his attempt to reclaim Malaysia when the connection was so plain that the left fondly point out that this was why the CIA took interest in the situation. Of course it is difficult to say how much in league Sukarno was with the Communists – to what extent he was using them and to what extent they were using him.

patrickg
13 years ago

I think you have fair points Jason, but I kind of side with James on this on: Just because Suharto may not have been as bad as Hitler, or Pinochet, or whomever, doesn’t make him good. It doesn’t even make him good compared with Sukarno (frankly, they were both berks, imho).

So I think, yes, we should condemn him, but it need not lessen our condemnation of Sukarno or anyone else, and I don’t think that’s what happening here.

Undisputed, I think: Suharto killed a f**king shitload of people – thousands, at least – and stole literally billions of dollars from the state. Do we need to lesson our approbium? Not really, surely?

patrickg
13 years ago

Sorry Jason, our replies overlapped. I agree with your statement, but I do think it’s a mite hair-splitty.

Bring Back CL's blog
Bring Back CL's blog
13 years ago

geoff Honnor morphs into Mark Latham. Who would have ever thunked it.

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